Taking the term half-Egyptian too literally

How many Egyptians are in this picture? Answers on a postcard

Here I go on about being half- Egyptian yet again.

The Supreme Military Council continued its experiments in Egyptian identity this week with a law that bans me from being involved in the establishment of an Egyptian political party or holding any position within one.

I happen to have been born to an Egyptian mother and British father. If their nationalities were swapped you wouldn’t be reading this and I might be busy peddling bullshit on satellite TV. But alas fate wanted otherwise and I have been saddled with this version of Egyptian citizenship, a car with no engine.

Luckily I don’t have any political aspirations. I do however resent belonging to a manufactured underclass, a status I thought I had cast off in 2005 when after a tortuous year of Egyptian bureaucracy I exercised my rights under the amended nationality law and got my filthy half breed hands on an Egyptian passport with my name (misspelt but never mind) on it.

Prior to 2004 Egyptian women could not pass on Egyptian nationality to their children. They had to marry an Egyptian man and have him do it. Egyptian men married to foreign women meanwhile have always been able to confer the nationality on their progeny, no questions asked (as far as I know).

There is no legitimate reason for limiting the extent of an Egyptian citizen’s rights on the basis of parentage but a brief survey of popular attitudes towards Egyptian identity may cast light on where this legislation has its roots.

In my experience when I meet a citizen of the Arab Republic of Egypt I am put through a sort of “triage” identity test.

1. Appearance

I do not conform to the popular conception of what an Egyptian should look like. Yes, yes I know, Egyptians come in many colours and the country’s history of occupation by all and sundry means that that there isn’t a single Egyptian “look”.

The spectrum may be vast, but it generally doesn’t extend to people who look white European (me) or black African, both of whom in my experience are automatically treated as outsiders unless and until they prove their Egyptian credentials.

Another complicating factor is that the idea of a standard Egyptian appearance isn’t restricted to genetics, either, as was revealed during the revolution, when one of my male “fully” Egyptian friends was challenged by members of the public because his hair was “too” long and one Egyptian female friend with very short hair accosted.

Attitudes towards the physical appearance of halfies are thus dictated by an oppressive homogeneity about what an Egyptian citizen is, and looks like.

2. Language

An Egyptian who doesn’t look Egyptian but speaks colloquial Egyptian Arabic fluently will generally be let off the hook at this point. If however like me you understand Arabic but speak it semi-brokenly with an accent you’re back to square one and will be told in no uncertain terms that “your tongue is heavy” or more bluntly “your Arabic is crap” and the onus of proving Egyptianness begins all over again.

Interestingly, bilingual card carrying fully 100% Egyptians also have similar difficulties. There exists a generation of Egyptian children educated in the Gulf and in international schools in Egypt who naturally and sometimes unconsciously drift between Arabic and English. Some of them speak (and very often write) better English than Arabic because of their education. Friends who fit this description say that they too have encountered a sort of masked scepticism about their identity.

Access to top-flight Egyptian language schools is restricted to the elite, from whose ranks many of the Mubarak regime were drawn. The associations explain a thinly veiled resentment against perceived members of this clique who abused political power to amass fortunes they did little to conceal.

3. An outright interrogation about nationality

I always describe myself as Egyptian-British, or alternatively the product of an Egyptian mother and British father, and the conversation usually goes thusly:

CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Enty masreyya? [Are you Egyptian?]

ME: Masreyya-Englezeyya [Egyptian-English]

CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Aih? / Gaza2ereyya? [What?/Algerian?]

ME: Masreyya-englezeyya ya3ni waldety masreyya we aboya englezy [Egyptian-English, my mum is Egyptian and my dad English]

CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTER: Englezeyya. Ahlan we sahlan / welcome [English. Welcome]

ME: sotto voce: For fuck’s sake

CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Sakna fe masr? [Do you live in Egypt?]

4. Name

Egyptian names very often indicate their bearer’s religion and there exists a narrower range of familiar names compared with countries with a recent history of immigration (with an allowance made for the more unusual Coptic Christian names, occasionally unfamiliar to some Egyptians Muslims). Names in Egypt are three or four part and consist of a first name followed by a father’s name, grandfather’s name and family name.

Except mine. When I was getting my nationality for some reason they put my middle name as my father’s name. I’m happy with that because my name is not Sarah Richard Carr.

If by some unlikely miracle I happen to have passed the three preceding tests proceedings will come to a halt when I tell them that my name is Sarah (passes no problem) Marea (could be Christian) Carr (interloper).

At best I will be accused of being a car rental firm, as often happens on the phone. At worst I will be told that “no Muslim can be called Sarah Marea Carr” by a spy hunter holding my ID card in one hand while brandishing a large stick in the other at a popular defence committee.

How often I have seen the cogs turning in police officers’ brains as they look at the front of my ID card, which bears my name, and then turn it over in order to ascertain my religion, which makes them even more flummoxed. The name does not fit the schema.

Having already placed me somewhere in Western Europe on the basis of my appearance (a conclusion then confirmed by my name) their attempts to tidily box me away are then scuppered by this piece of state bureaucracy in their hands telling them that I am officially one of them even though my father is not.

My battle is thus on two fronts against conceptions of who can parent an Egyptian citizen and about what exactly constitutes an Egyptian citizen.

Society has yet to catch up with the nationality law, which upholds the jus sanguinis rule equally for men and women. The default setting for halfies born to Egyptian women seems to be that s/he is Foreign Until Proven Otherwise because of the triage test described above. We fail the name test. More often than not we also fail the appearance test if the father is white – patriarchy exists even before birth and paternal genes seem often to dominate their maternal counterparts. And on top of this is a belief that Egyptian women can’t create Egyptian babies without the input of a fellow citizen.

What makes this slightly sinister is that a minority in Egyptian society seems to regard relationships between Egyptian women and foreigners (by which here I mean non-Arabs) as morally dubious. The thinking seems to be: “he is a white European/American and is not a Muslim/he has no religion. They therefore met while she was lap dancing and got married in the church of Shahira in a pagan ceremony”.

This prejudice was particularly useful when state media wished to discredit Mohamed ElBaradei shortly after he began making a nuisance of himself politically. Luckily for them, his daughter is married to a British man. Over a year after he (sort of) returned to Egypt he was still having to explain publicly that his daughter is not an infidel.

(But then the media everywhere loves demonising strangers as was evident when Princess Di got it on with Dodi el-Fayed).

And the point is these attitudes occasionally translate into behaviour that is exclusionary and makes its target feel like outsiders, even if the intention is well meant. I remember when I was outside Maspero on the day Mubarak stepped down feeling a presence behind me. I turned around and he was gone, but my friend Om Nakad told me that a man had been photographing my hair. Not my general person, not the lovely female friends with me, a close-up of my lustrous (dyed, ratty) blonde hair.

Later on that evening while walking down Qasr El-Eini Street I saw a bunch of what were very obviously tourists spectating. A woman pulled a camera out of her bag and said to her companion, “estana 3owza atsawwar ma3 el aganeb” [wait I want to take a picture with the foreigners] like she was at the zoo. It was a bit like this nonsense (although the kid is charming I have to admit).

On a different day in Tahrir Square on one of the Fridays when people still congregated there I was accosted by a gentleman welcoming me to Egypt exuberantly in English in front of a line of large posters proclaiming that Egypt is safe for tourists.

I attempted to explain who I am, and then attempted to convey to him that when foreigners get “welcome” thrown at them every 10 metres while walking Egyptian streets it tends to have the effect of reminding tourists that they are strangers in a strange land, in addition to being fucking annoying and slightly dodgy when you are a lone female and the person doing the welcoming is inevitably a male under 40. He absolutely couldn’t see it, insisting that Egyptians “are friendly people” and that “foreigners like it”.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I hate generalisations about the Arab world, particularly when emitted by Pulitzer winning moustachioed morons, so I emphasise that NOT EVERY SINGLE EGYPTIAN thinks like this. My own experience, and that of my friends, and my reading of the media does show however that there exists an unfamiliarity with non-Egyptians, and with non-Egyptian culture amongst some. If you don’t believe me ask an African refugee in Egypt.

Egyptian modern history accounts in part for this unfamiliarity. The story goes that when Nasser and the free officers said hello, foreigners went bye-bye and Egypt’s cosmopolitanism (by which I mean foreigners and the Egyptian elite living it up while the majority of Egyptians were 2nd class citizens in their own countries) died. But I question how much familiarity there was, how much mixing, and genuine friendship, existed between non-Egyptian residents of Egypt and say the Egyptian working class and rural farmers. If anyone knows, tell me.

In any case the numbers of foreigners reduced dramatically and they were to some extent demonised, as one expects after hundreds of years of occupation and exploitation.  Arabist puts it much more eloquently here.

I can’t help but make the comparison with the UK, particularly during the revolution when I heard gems such as “we don’t want you [non-Egyptians] in our country” and “go back to your country”. Yesterday during a march I got “why are you here?” and “Get out the way, foreigner” by a Hardees delivery prick on a moped.

The Hardees comment was throwaway and laddish, but I grew up in a culture where singling someone out (even more so when they are a British citizen) on the basis of their origins or colour and making remarks that make them feel ostracised is unacceptable. Every time someone refers to a non-Egyptian as “the foreigner” I cringe.

Prejudice is rife in the UK, as the English Defence League demonstrates, but outright racism is (mostly) a taboo (although some parts of the media have yet to realise this). 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants have fought long and hard to establish their right to be accepted as British by white nationals. The battle is ongoing (particularly for British Muslims), but at least society has moved on slightly from the Rising Damp days.

It’s difficult to complain about exclusionary attitudes as a foreigner without sounding like an arsehole because of the history. This isn’t Britain where waves of immigrants from former colonies arrived in the motherland and experienced the worst kinds of racism and discrimination.

The situation in Egypt is the inverse, and a (usually) privileged “1st world” person whining about the natives’ behaviour will more often than not sound petulant and obnoxious, as is demonstrated by the Cairo Scholars mailing list. I am acutely aware of this and am not giving myself the licence to freely criticise Egyptian society just because I have the nationality. I’m writing this because this is a country I love. And I sincerely hope that thus far I haven’t sounded like an arsehole.

The ambivalence of Egyptian society towards outsiders was acutely demonstrated during the revolution. When I say outsiders, I don’t just mean non-Egyptians. I collected frightening testimonies of mob attacks against Egyptians perceived as being different and somehow not Egyptian enough.

The timing of this mass xenophobia coincided closely with the state media campaign against foreigners accused of fomenting unrest in Tahrir and elsewhere, and there is evidence to indicate that the attacks that occurred around the Square were not spontaneous. But further afield attacks were carried out with zealous enthusiasm by individuals who seemed genuinely to believe that the country was under attack from a plague of spies.

I experienced what felt like real contempt during this time. The worst thing is that every time I produced my ID card and stuttered out “I am Egyptian” I started to believe that I actually was an imposter. The fact that for three years I have faced similar (but less hysterical) responses while out reporting helped me deal with these situations but the constant threat of violence always left me in need of a drink.

Everything was topsy-turvy during the revolution and people exulted in power in the absence of a police force. These were exceptional circumstances. But this isn’t a reason to dismiss these incidents. I was shocked by the attitude of some activist friends who played down their significance. One person I spoke to, an Egyptian who was accused of being a foreigner/spy/whatever and made to leave a group of striking workers she was talking to asked me how I was going to use the testimonies I was gathering, saying that she preferred not to relate her experience unless it was presented in the context of a media-driven campaign of xenophobia.

Attacks on minorities jar with the popular narrative of the revolution, with the image of Tahrir being a utopia of tolerance and harmony. Tahrir was a dream, but protestors brought the Us vs. Them dichotomy with them into the square. Even revolutionaries can be arseholes. I’m thinking here of the protestors who found the time as rocks fell on our heads on February 2nd to tell me to stop taking photographs because they had decided I’m a foreigner.

The way a society treats its minorities really does indicate how healthy, and at ease with itself, it is; a society that treats its own citizens as outsiders is by definition scared of itself.

I hope that Egypt will one day complete its revolution by reducing poverty and closing income gaps, upholding the rights of its religious minorities, instituting an educational system that produces iconoclasts and thinkers. Maybe then society will be less insular, and suspicious, and stratified, and angry, and the definition of the Egyptian citizen will somehow be enlarged because with confidence will come the generosity born of trust.

Or maybe conceptions of identity will change as more of the children born to one, or two Egyptian parents abroad return to Egypt and force acceptance of their differences through their mere physical presence.

But there is something that can be done in the short-term, and that is for the government to stop passing bullshit discriminatory legislation that reinforces prejudice.

On Wednesday the army announced amendments to the political parties law. The amendments did not include removal of the clause in the law that states that anyone wishing to hold a post in a political party or be one of its founders must have an Egyptian father.

On Thursday the army presented its long-awaited Constitutional Declaration, a sort of collection of constitutional principles it has cobbled together until a committee appointed by parliament draws up a new constitution. Article 7 of this Declaration states that “all citizens are equal under the law and have equal rights and duties”.

Article 26 of the same document states that I can never be President of the Republic, even if I renounced my British nationality because I must have “two Egyptian parents”. Also, people married to non-Egyptians are not allowed to be president (note that, inconsistently, it doesn’t state the spouse can’t be a dual national. Which means that the First Lady* could theoretically be a naturalised Egyptian and exercise her evil khawaga voodoo on the president).

The prohibition on single nationality Egyptians with a foreign parent being president is of course perfectly logical, because as Mohamed Hosny Mubarak demonstrated only a proper Egyptian can really love el watan and run it competently. An Egyptian with a foreign parent would allow corruption and torture to spread and pursue policies that result in class divisions widening and the numbers of poor increasing and put Israel’s foreign policy needs before Egypt’s own and stay for 30 years.

I would like to bring a case challenging the prohibition on citizens born to Egyptian mothers taking part an active part in political parties, and invite any other halfies born to Egyptian mothers interested to add their crazy confusing names to mine.

In the meantime I appeal to you, dear Egyptian full breed readers of this blog to be a little bit more forgiving towards your halfie brothers and sisters, (particularly the Egyptian mother foreign father combo) and help spread the following message.

I don’t speak Arabic fluently. I can’t write a paragraph of formal Arabic. I didn’t grow up in Egypt and thus can’t laugh at your reference to a 1980s Channel 1 kids programme. I don’t have a solid grounding in any religion and thus the religious cultural references that litter casual conversation go over my head. I can’t list Amr Diab’s entire back catalogue. I don’t look like you.

I do though feel attached to Egypt as much as you, even if this attachment is expressed in unorthodox ways. Egyptian cultural identity is strong enough to withstand a few of its citizens bowling around not being able to identify famous 1980s Egyptian actresses and mispronouncing letters, so if people could refrain from going on about us ruining the fabric of society that would be marvelous**.

If the Tahrir sit-in proved anything it demonstrated that when it comes to the crunch differences don’t matter, social diversity is good and we all hate Mubarak. كلنا ايد واحدة يا حبايب

Don’t blame us for Suzanne Mubarak and I leave you with the grand wizard of the angry oppressed minority, Toyama Koichi.

*I am aware that in theory the president could be a woman and thus we might have a First Gentleman. But as Arabist says: http://twitter.com/#!/arabist/status/54138610500382720

** Oh and another request. When you go on about the British occupation of Egypt if you could resist the urge to make a reference to my grandfather and then expect me to laugh I would be grateful. The joke went stale in approximately 1987.

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89 Responses to Taking the term half-Egyptian too literally

  1. Amira says:

    What do you have against halfies with Egyptian fathers then? We’re just as halfie as you! :-p

    • Hesham says:

      Yeah but the family name and our features (usually) will be more Egyptian so we’re not as discriminated against half as much as someone born to an Egyptian Muslim father.

      • Youssuf says:

        That’s not entirely true my friend. Genetics are a little more complex than your father having all the “dominant” genes.

        I don’t think Sarah has anything against halfies whose mothers aren’t Egyptian.

        Realize that there is a much larger stigma (albeit completely unfair and unfounded) associated with an Egyptian woman marrying someone who isn’t of Egyptian origin. I believe (although I could be wrong) that’s what Sarah is alluding to.

        • Hesham says:

          I did say “usually”. I know a lot of people with foreign mothers and most of them aren’t “white”, although I do know some who are. Never stated that fathers always have the dominent genes as a fact. You can’t do anything about the name and religion though. I fully realize the stigma associated with an Egyptian woman marrying someone who isn’t of Egyptian origin, which I think my first comment clearly shows.

    • Sarah Carr says:

      Nothing my sista!

  2. Ulrike says:

    Dear Sarah – my full support! I’m mother to a (almost) 8 year-old female ‘double’ (she insists she is both, not half-half) Egyptian-German girl, who is planning to be the first female president.
    I feel all you write, have experienced it all in my 14 years in this country.
    With all respect, racism is alive and kicking here, too. It is a long way to go almost everywhere on this planet.
    In German there is a saying ‘Wehret den Anfaengen’, i.e. fight it from the beginning. I fear it’s already too late, but for sure that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s worth it for Egypt!

  3. Sara says:

    Brilliant post!
    I’m a halfie myself (Dutch-Egyptian) and I’ve come to realize that both Holland and Egypt have problems accepting difference. However, I must say I felt much more comfortable in Cairo – by far. Yes, racism is better hidden in Europe but it tends to be worse for dark-skinned people here than it is for light-skinned people in Egypt, in my experience. At the same time, I never thought about how it’s different for halfies with Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers…usually it’s the other way around. I can imagine that that’s a more difficult situation.

  4. I might be splitting hairs here, but I really don’t like the term “halfies”, by default it “reduces” whomever holds that label as somewhat incomplete. There is no such thing as a whole, complete, genuine, true to the bone Egyptian… you know this is fiction.
    There a many different flavors of Egyptians, and you present a very special and not so common kind.
    You are quite right that attitudes will have to change. It must come first through laws that do not discriminate. This must be followed by a dramatic change in political discourse. Recall that for the past 60 or so years the phrase “masr mostahdafa” (Egypt is targeted by foreign powers) was used to justify a great deal of incompetence.
    This, combined with a great deal of low national self-esteem led to that a rather uneasy, and at time very artificially friendly, attitude towards anyone who is not stereotypically local.
    I am hopeful that as Egyptian become more self-assured and build back their self-esteem that this will change.

    • Alia says:

      i agree that alot of this attitude (sometimes extending to certain expressions of nationalism) are a reflection of low self esteem.. when you’re not sure who you are , it helps to try to remind others, who they aren’t. esp when it’s not true.

  5. Khaled sadek says:

    Nicely put

  6. Strangetown says:

    Another good piece! You offer an insight into a situation I will never find myself in (ordinary common or garden english bloke) in such a way as to make it compelling and informative – I read it all the way through and did not find it in the least bit tedious, which is more than I can say for some stuff that gets published online in well-known broadsheets. All the best!:)

  7. Have you considered getting this post translated into Arabic and published in one of the independent newspapers?

  8. acairene says:

    My lineage dilemma is not as serious as yours (egyptian father and maternal grandfather), but having grown up outside of Egypt, I dont know the cultural references either, and have constantly been made to feel like an outsider.

    Something that was sort of implicit in your post, but which I would prefer to make explicit is an argument I gave up on making many years ago (because the whole problem is people thinking they are better than others). Anyway, it is sort of the logical conclusion of the later portions of your post: Since I have the option to go anywhere in the world, to live my life out in a peace, prosperity and democracy, does it not occur to you that it makes me more loyal? I am Egyptian by choice, not birth. And I am in Egypt, fighting the good fight by choice, not because I can’t afford illegal passage to Italy on a rickety raft.

    Again, this is the kind of argument that is not constructive because it puts people on the defensive. But it is something that would get me extremely angry.

    • Sarah Carr says:

      Yeah I always think that since I have another living option but I choose to live here it’s sort of understood how I feel about the country. But apparently this isn’t clear.

      What I used to get A LOT is “why the hell do you choose to live here” (asked rhetorically) but interestingly that’s stopped in the past year. I don’t know why.

  9. Youssuf says:

    First of all I’d like to commend you on bringing this topic to light. Although I am not a “halfie” myself I have experienced much of what you have described. My story is somewhat long winded but in short I am a western born/raised Egyptian. I’ve had countless people (including my own family in Egypt) tell me that not only am I not Egyptian but that it is impossible for me to identify or relate to anything Egyptian. Many of these people are often shocked when I tell them I feel this strong affinity to classic Egyptian icons such as Abdel Haleem Hafez and Umm Kalthoom. I have friends in Egypt that I actively maintain ties with. I’ve come to realize that no one can define what it means to be “Egyptian” no more than what it means to be “American” or “British”. Sometimes you have to say the hell with the haters and go on with being who you are.

  10. Marwa says:

    Brilliant and nicely put!! As Mr. Elbeltagy says , a true pure Egyptian is just Fiction.My grandmother is Lebanese who has iranian (yep!) half brothers and sisters, I have a moroccan great grandmother and God knows what else lies in the ancestral tree of our family!!! I agree with you but I think all this will change once we regain our own pride in owr own “Egyptianess” and the moronic media stops the ” masr mostahdafa min elaganeb elwe7sheen” slogans. You are truely unique Sarah…every Egyptian is…and I am sure you’ve noticed-in the good old times- how simple Egyptians must love your arabic accent and smile at how funny it is without being offensive. It’ll pass inchalla…we’ll have to give it some time! But you and all your kind are truly unique and will always make up a unique part of our culture.

  11. I thought I might throw in this little story, it always cracks me up when I remember it:
    I was once walking down in Khan El-Khalili with a couple of Mexican friends. Whenever we approached a store, my Mexican friends were pushed aside and dismissed with the vendor locking his eyes on me and saying something along the lines: “Haseeb ya 3am, 3ayzeen neshoof El-Khawaga” (Excuse me, we want to check out that foreigner).

  12. blacklisted says:

    Clearly you don’t appreciate the fact that Egyptian sperm is the strongest sperm of all the world’s sperms. Being Egyptian is medically defined as being bazooka blasted by the DNA cannon that is an Egyptian ejaculation. Fact: DNA is carried by the sperm.

    • Hesham says:

      That’s just your ego and a life-long of prejudice talking man… Was there a study conducted which conclusively proves that Egyptian sperm is the “strongest sperm of all the world’s sperms”? The answer is no.

      “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” -Einstein

      “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” -George Bernard Shaw

      Don’t confuse your love for your country and/or its people with false patriotism which is fueled and sustained by the ego. There IS a difference.

    • Sarah Carr says:

      Best comment ever, Blacklisted.

    • Anonymous says:

      Lol mu 54 yr old uncle in Egypt told me that 10 years ago lol common story in Egypt we got sperm everyone no matter what happens the sperm is alive and well

  13. katy says:

    what a marvelous photograph.

  14. Barbara says:

    Clearly all of you halfies need to organize and lobby and make sure this silly piece of 19th century thinking does not make it into the future constitution.

  15. Baraka says:

    My granddaughter is one-quarter American (my fault entirely), and at the age of 5 was rather confused about her Egyptian-ness. One day she said to us triumphantly: “OK, now I get it! I am three scoops Egyptian and one scoop American!” She was fine after that.

  16. Pingback: Keep your head down, you’re not Egyptian « Sibilant Egypt

  17. Nadia Idle says:

    Effin brilliant. You describe my halfie-the-wrong-way experiences so well!

  18. Faltas says:

    “The way a society treats its minorities really does indicate how healthy, and at ease with itself, it is; a society that treats its own citizens as outsiders is by definition scared of itself.”

    True. We are a society that doesn’t know itself well enough.

  19. But some day, you really must peddle your shit on satellite TV. It’s too wonderful to stay bottled up.

    Or at least you should get a Pulitzer for Friedman satire. Is there a category for that?

  20. Mona says:

    This is a fantastic post. Both of my parents are Egyptian but I was raised in the US so can relate to a lot of this. I’m usually perceived as foreign in Egypt (before I start talking, which gives it away) since even my appearance and mannerisms don’t conform to to this really narrow, rigid idea of “Egyptian.” I love Egypt but get frustrated with the insularity and ignorance and defensiveness that you describe so well.

  21. Mona says:

    Also I want to say that I love the picture. Partly because your mother looks like one of my most well-loved relatives but most because of the warmth it captures.

  22. Pingback: links for 2011-04-02 « Cairene's Nilometer

  23. Baqdunis says:

    “But I question how much familiarity there was, how much mixing, and genuine friendship, existed between non-Egyptian residents of Egypt and say the Egyptian working class and rural farmers. If anyone knows, tell me.”
    Read Will Hadley and Khaled Fahmy on the myths of a cosmopolitan Alexandria. And Mario M. Ruiz on interracial sexual relations + violence.

  24. Alia says:

    You can’t let it hurt you. I think there’s a peace or agreement you find with yourself keda, when you feel you really do belong; and all this talk and insinuations to worthiness just whither away. It won’t stop, bas eventually it’ll mean much less to you. Took a little less than a decade for me, bas then again, tab3an its different. Ironically i’ve found unconditional acceptance in poorer and marginal communities where i’ve worked. i think i sort of made my peace/found my worthiness/gravity there. they helped turn it into a laughable matter. this really is a society that operates on intimidation; once you know for sure that you are, it will matter much less to hear that you aren’t. the one affirmation i ever got was from a street-child after we spent some time talking on a side-walk in sayeda “ta3rafy…” he said “enty bent balad.. bent balad we aseela kaman..”. i never thought that could be a compliment you could give, nor one i could need. bas it meant something incredible, and it could have only come from him.

  25. Shady El Mashak says:

    I felt very reflected in your piece my dear Sarah. Although I pass the “name” test, since I am born to an Egyptian Father and an Argentine mother, I still have to go thought the rest of the tests, like appearance / religion…etc. Sincerely you have been very capable of describing and putting into words all that went though my mind at those moments where I found my self in an uncomfortable situations where I was judged just because, I was a “Halfie”. Like this time I was asked if my mother was virgin the day she married my father! My answer of course was “What the fuck do you care?! Why don’t you go ask your mum if she was?!”

    Thank you! I enjoyed it!

  26. Lilly says:

    In the American South we say (used to say) “Who’s your daddy?”, “Who was your mother?” (looking for her maiden name), and “Where are you from?” We used to ask for a citizen’s grandmother’s maiden name during voter registration (don’t let those black people vote). Now that we’re blanketed by bland and ruthless corporate chains we say “How may I help you?” and “Have a nice day” or “Have a good one” and “What do you do?” (code for “where does your money–however much or little it is–come from?”). I don’t know which is worse, “Where does your money come from?” or “Where do you come from?”. “How are you?” is still heard, once in a while.

    I’m rather glad you tell us how you are, Ms Carr.

  27. Nevsh says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It’ll probably really piss you off to know that I once (and my brother all the time), forgot my Egyptian passport while returning home from the U.S. I also have an American passport, which I use to travel to most places, but use the Egyptian to enter and exit Egypt. I was at the customs counter and the only thing I had to show I’m Egyptian is my “karnee el nady”…but because my “four names” are all Egyptian, the guy didn’t even blink. And I entered, no problem.

    But now I just married a German guy….so I wonder what my “kids” will go through….even though our genes should be dominant over “white” genes, I still see so many halfies, who are way more white than brown….so who knows…

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Sarah Carr says:

      Nevsh a similar carnet el nady scenario happened to my Egyptian-British friend. She has an Egyptian father but for reasons which are irrelevant here took her mother’s British name. She was nonetheless allowed into Egypt on her British passport with barely any questions.

      As for your future little halfies (or “doubles” as someone above suggested we should be called) just make sure you teach them Arabic. It makes a world of difference.

  28. PascaleN says:

    Thank you for writing Sarah.
    More recent debates on ‘national identity’ say that nationalism is a shared love and heart for a society or country; not your paperwork or genes.
    My mother is French, my father is Egyptian; I speak English, Arabic and French, lived in Egypt all my life, but also worked throughout the Arab world and Europe. My parents taught me you can never learn enough. I LOVE the world, and find mutual close relationships with people and learn so much from all types and backgrounds; constantly.
    Yet I still have to stick it to my grandparents on BOTH sides every now and then, that my national identity is NOT a disaster and that I no longer belong anywhere. I peg it to outer materialism, domination and less spiritual traits of the older generation or old thinking. You can embrace the beauty of different cultures’ existence, without the insecure need to destroy the ‘other’
    Sabah El Fol 2011! and world awakening!

  29. Ash Shelf says:

    “Haters gon hate.”

    Great read, it rings true throughout.

  30. Nicole Hansen says:

    I have no Egyptian blood but I have dual Egyptian-American citizenship because my husband is Egyptian and I have to say getting the Egyptian citizenship was actually easier and cheaper for me than renewing a residence visa! I would like to see the law changed also so that people like your father can become citizens as I was able to do.

    I also have not experienced the same extent of racist attitudes you have. Honestly, I think the number one factor is that I wear higab. I like having blonde hair, so I cover it! And as a result I have ridden the buses for years and with very few exceptions never been harassed. I feel safer on a bus actually than the women’s car on the metro. First of all, this means at first glance strangers don’t necessarily assume I am not Egyptian. Secondly, even if they do realize it or recognize it, they know I must be Muslim and that helps too. I shouldn’t be that way, but the fact of the matter is if you put on a higab 99% of the problems would go away. Now, one might say this is a restriction of freedom etc. etc., but I keep in mind there is nothing I can do without the higab on that I can’t do with it on, so why should I make myself suffer? I’m not going to tell you to wear the higab because it is religiously required, as there are differences of opinion on that, but I would simply suggest trying it for a while and see if it makes a difference.

    With that aside, I DO have the name problem, and to less extent the language problem as I am fairly fluent although not without an accent and can read and write Arabic too now for more than 20 years. Even if I could pass myself off as Egyptian, when I introduce myself by name to people I always explain that I was born in the US but I have Egyptian citizenship through my husband. I hate having to do it because it feels like showing off, but I have to do it. Once people know that, and they can see I speak Arabic reasonably well, they almost always listen to what I say and treat me with the same respect they would another Egyptian. I have had almost entirely positive experiences during the revolution and have been accepted at protests, meetings, FB groups etc. In fact, I was invited to be an admin of a group run by some Egyptians by someone who said, “You are more Egyptian than us” even before she knew I do have Egyptian citizenship.

    Now, I would like to point out that the worst treatment I have gotten as a naturalized Egyptian citizen has been from British living in Egypt and this goes back to before the revolution and has continued after. Some of them have been extremely abusive toward me. They mock me and say I am not Egyptian and never will be, and one told me I have no right to express my opinion as I am a “guest in this country” just like herself. This was from someone who is living and working here illegally on a tourist visa. So I have to disagree on your assessment that Brits are less racist than Egyptians. That they can come to a foreign country and express such dismal attitudes toward its citizens who also share the same ethnic ancestry as themselves shows the depth of their hatred.

  31. Lucy Seton-Watson says:

    Oh Sarah, bravo, and well put. Issandr El Amrani said it last week too, but not as well as this. Well done, and it IS important. It’s the other side of the inferiority complex, and it’s just scapegoating those who can be got at. It MATTERS. Good on you.

  32. Pingback: “Just who do you think you are?!” « So I married a Farangi

  33. Newgyptian says:

    Another good ‘un Ms. Carr. Hats off for getting it so right once again.

  34. Yawn says:

    When it comes to nationality, you ‘are’ whatever country you lived most your life in, what culture shaped your identity.. regardless of nationalities your parents are from and your passport/ID card has nothing to do with it as well. A Half Egyptian half Canadian who lived most or entire his/her life in Belgium is neither an Egyptian or a Canadian or a Canadian-Egyptian.. they are simply Belgians. So the question is, are you Egyptian? sure why not.. you might as well be an Italian, who really cares? you are free to claim any Nationality or identity but deep down you know you are not ‘an Egyptian girl’ and the culture hasn’t formed you in anyway and that isn’t just because you could hardly speak the lingo.. but hey love I am an inuit!

    • Sarah Carr says:

      I think you may want to inform 2nd generation German nationals of Turkish origin who have lived in Germany all their life that you have decreed that they are not Turkish. Actually don’t bother, they won’t care what you think, just like I don’t.

      Thank you for proving the point of my post, “love”.

      • Yawn says:

        Gosh, do you really know anything about Turks in Germany?? Actually, most Turks living in Germany are very influenced by their national culture same as Asians in Britain, they maintain their traditions no matter where they migrate, hence my point, it’s also the culture which really makes you what you are. ‘Mixed’ kids are usually less influenced by neither culture of their parents unless they grew up in one of their ‘half’ countries- case in point- in other words, they are more shaped by the community no matter which country. ‘Full-bred’ children in unbroken homes are the ones most likely to live within their original cultures especially those belonging to very strong cultures like Urdu. Many might have never been to Pakistan or India but they relate to their ancestry easily. It’s not the same thing with mixed children.

        I’m not attacking mixed children , I am just explaining that cultural influences have much lesser impact on them. There are actually several researches covering that issue in the UK when it comes to children born to both Asian parents or a mixed Asian/English marriage. You can google that up and understand more about it if you are really interested. Personally I don’t care about races and all that crap, in the end people are people but I find it hilarious that some kids come to one of their ancestry countries, can’t speak the language and hardly know anything about the people and culture(other than reading lonely planet guides), live there for a couple of years and then say, Hey I am just like you because my mother or father used to live here like 4 decades ago.

        My point is very valid, you are just an Egyptian as Obama is a Kenyan… if you’re still not convinced turn things around and ask yourself this: If you were grown and bred in Egypt, spoke English in a distinctive Egyptian accent and then moved to England and with your poor command of the language kept telling your fellow Brits “Hey, I just English like you becoz my fazer iss English too!” do you think anyone will take you seriously? even your friends won’t really take you seriously.

        In the end who cares?you think you are Egyptian, great but don’t bitch and expect too much from people when you look funny and speak funny to them..it’s just too dumb.

        • Sarah Carr says:

          Thank you for more unproved generalisations about Asians, Turks, Egyptian, English, Kenyans, Obama mixed kids and me which again prove the point of my blog post.

          Perhaps when you actually meet me you can pontificate about who I am and whether I pass your Egyptian test, until then feel free to make comments/troll but don’t expect an answer from me.

          • Yawn says:

            What unproved generalisations are you talking about? I wasn’t generalising different cultures, merely giving examples of children born from mixed unions vs same nationalities unions. Those are studies.
            Why are you being so defensive? did you read and understand my comment? I don’t know you but I do read your blog and if I understand correctly .. this whole Egypt thing is new to you and the cultural shock is obvious in some of your writings. I don’t care if you think you are Egyptian or not but you mention the ‘Egyptian test’. I don’t have one but it seems you should pass one for the general populace and it doesn’t seem that you do, do you? Can you read a book in colloquial Egyptian and get the little cynical jokes without asking your friends? Which culture do you feel more related to..English or Egyptian? Which country’s traditions do you feel they are alien and perhaps ridiculous from your point of view?
            ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly and you don’t need to answer my comment or pass anyone’s ‘Egyptian test’….. just need to pass your own.

  35. Maha says:

    Hello Guys,
    I am an Egyptian too, and I will not claim that I have double citizenship. I do understand your point of view, and I respect it, and I believe that a true Egyptian is one that would look after the country, hold its best interest at heart, show a sense of belonging, and attach themselves and earn the culture, as T.S.Eliott said you don’t belong to a culture by name but you earn it by inclosing yourself in it and making it part and parcel of your life!
    I’m not pointing fingers and I can never tell anybody if they r truly Egyptian or no! It is their desicion!
    However, I agree that things are not at their best , but nothing changes in an instance, we have been brainwashed for thirty years and it is will take time for everybody to be open minded and start questionning and finding their own truth and take on things!

    You say Egyptians have been prejudiced against you but they are always being prejudiced at as well, so we are equal in that matter! I know it is not an excuse, I’m not defending anybody here, I’m just showing you the grass form the other side.
    I have worked with a lot of foreigners, and I’ve seen the different treatment, the lack of interest, the belief of the incompetency…etc
    It takes time to make people re think and weigh why they do certain things and hold certain beliefs! and I think a good outcome of the revolution had been the act of eliminating illetracy in Egypt, because only then you can dream of an Egypt that is built on mutual understanding, and respect for the other.
    think of it this way, when you have always been in a process of othering, then by instinct you profess it , its subconscious sadism!

    I really hope that this won’t be the case from now on, I hope we can all accept each other the way we are !
    It might not mean anything to any Egyptian who has got a parent of different citizenship, but as an Egyptian, I hope I’m a good one, I don’t think of any of you as less Egyptian based on where you were born or how your skin colour looks like!
    I think Egypt needs all true Egyptians to help out no matter where they are, how they look like and what religion, or no religion they believe in!
    we are all in this together, because if the outcome is good we all benefit from it, and it all touches our hearts.
    I hope for a better Egypt for all of us, and I can assure you there are a lot of Egyptians that think similarly.

  36. Suzanne Ross (El Naggar) says:

    Is that your mum? She is so very, very beautiful.

    Love from someone with only one Egyptian parent.

  37. amelia says:

    (after posting this on the wrong entry, I feel compelled to fix my error)

    I’m a canadian reader, and one thing your blog always does for me is offer a pretty good view about how people everywhere are pretty much the same, unfortunately.

    to wit:

    “…particularly during the revolution when I heard gems such as “we don’t want you [non-Egyptians] in our country” and “go back to your country”. Yesterday during a march I got “why are you here?” and “Get out the way, foreigner” by a Hardees delivery prick on a moped.”

    Replace “Hardees delivery prick on a moped” with “Trucker douchebag in Levis” and that could be a card-carrying rural midwesterner so oft maligned. Or, in my home country’s case, like the time I heard a lunatic on the subway yelling at a (Chinese) public transit employee to “go back to his own country” (shouty man was black and wearing a JAMAICA sweater, btw, ps, sidebar, Canada is nobody’s country except the people we murdered for it).

    Good to see that maddening nationalism bordering on racism exists everywhere, imagine all the people etc.

  38. CAT says:

    The complex love-hate relationship Egyptians have with foreigners and all things foreign, is something that has always fascinated me. As a westerner of Asian decent who lived in Cairo for a few years, the questions, the comments and stares were a source of equal parts annoyance, amusement and bedevilment. I also did a bit of work with the Sudanese refugees in Cairo and their stories would just floor me with the kind of ignorance and sometimes violence that they are subjected to by some Egyptians. My Egyptians friends would reassure me that it is ignorance that plagues the streets and I should take it all with a grain of salt. So I once asked an Egyptian friend to walk behind me a bit (not to be seen as “together”) and she could not bear it – hearing the comments, witnessing the blatent, leering stares. I’d like to reiterate that this is a segment, albiet an annoying one, of my former life in Egypt – not its entirety.

  39. Didite says:

    I was really interested to read what Nicole wrote about being married to an Egyptian. Being married to a Tunisian, I can’t help but be a bit irritated by what seems like a double standard. While it’s perfectly normal for him to learn English and no one seems to doubt his ability to become an American citizen an be familiar with American/anglophone culture, the reverse doesn’t seem to hold true for me.
    Jaws drop when I understand what’s being said on TV in Arabic and I endure a lot of being talked to as though I’m dumb as a post. Generally, I would assume that most breathing people with two brain cells to rub together know things like Muslims pray towards Mecca, or most boundaries in the Middle East reflect colonial machinations more than actual populations, or that Arab and Muslim are not synonymous…

  40. Sara says:

    Coming to this a bit late, but had to add my compliments. I’m a halfie too, and though my name passes the sniff test, my appearance and Arabic skills often don’t. I was regularly told while covering the revolution that I looked like a foreigner and spent four years in Cairo with people telling me that I wasn’t a real Egyptian. At first I tried to comply with what people seemed to think a ‘real’ Egyptian was, in terms of way of dressing, language and cultural context, but eventually I came to realise I would never be a ‘real’ Egyptian where that meant born to two Egyptian parents (English mum), born and raised in Egypt (grew up mostly in the UK), a fluent Arabic speaker (Dad never spoke it at home) and a practicing Muslim. I also came to realise that whatever anyone else had to say about it, I am in fact Egyptian by my understanding of the term, simply because I have an Egyptian parent, which is not going change, regardless of how I appear to other people. I’m proud to be Egyptian, and I’m proud to be English. I’m proud to be both, and I always identify myself as both. Whether I comply with somebody else’s constructed notion of what either of those two identities mean is totally irrelevant to my life.

  41. a reader says:

    I think ‘yawn’ makes very valid points that are reflected in real life.

  42. Loloa says:

    Here is another story from a “Double” an Egyptian-American, who’s been discriminated against in both countries, but i will write here about the american half. You’ll be surprised when I tell you that everywhere I go in USA, i have to go through the American test. Everywhere I go, the first word of greeting me would be “Hola” and \ Is Mexico safe now? . I am a physician and because I look a bit like a hispanic, people ask me are you the nurse, or the cleaning gal?
    I think you got the point. Yes Americans are racist too!

  43. Nancy Morrison says:

    Rising Damp! Oh man that brings back memories. I’m a wrong way halfie too and sick of explaining that I don’t have an ‘Esm Tholathy’, and that yes I am muslim. Where did you get the pink badge that says it’s my country too? I want one :)

  44. sunbula says:

    great piece sarah. as a fellow halfie (my dad south asian my mom american) a lot of what you wrote resonated with me :), especially as to how i’m read in different places according to skin color, accent etc. many egyptians refused to believe my south asian bkground cos I am tall and relatively light skinned. most people who arent mixed and havent lived in more than one place usually don’t “get” it, and im glad you do.
    however, india having a little more national pride will not allow me to obtain it’s nationality even though basically my entire family lives there and i lived there most of my childhood, so be glad you could at least get the passport :). keep fighting and pushing people’s assumptions!

  45. Pingback: Language and the nation « Arun with a View

  46. M says:

    Hi, my friend showed me this blog since we were dissing a certain mustachioed moron whom you so eloquently parodied, and I wanted to drop my compliments on your writing and your ideas.

    I’m not Egyptian, or even half-Egyptian. I’m Chinese-American, but we have similar issues here. People tend to ask me, “oh, so where are you from?” When I answer “Philadelphia,” their brow wrinkles and they say, “no, like, originally.” To which I answer, “um….I was born in Colorado. Do you mean where my family is from?”

    And that’s the polite ones. The less polite ones just say “knee-how-mah (or however you’re supposed to alliterate “hello” in Mandarin),” and then proceed to speak to me very loudly and very slowly in English until I say something like, “I can speak English, you know.”

    What’s funny about the whole thing is that when I visit my relatives in Hong Kong, a lot of people simply assume that I’m half-white (I’m not). All the time, especially once they figure out that I speak Chinese like a five-year-old. “Oooooh,” they say, “your daddy British or American?” (They always assume it’s my father) At this point my left eye starts twitching while I try to cover it up with a smile and a shrug. After all, I sound like an idiot speaking Chinese, so I’m not going to be able to explain it to them, anyways.

    I do realize we probably have it easier here in America since there is never a veiled threat of violence, but I wanted to let you and your readers know that you’re not alone, and that being nicer to people considered as “outsiders” can only be a good thing.

    P.S. I love your blog.

  47. Ahmed Ben Saida says:

    I have never faced a problem being halfie likely because I’m Algerian . Well, It was good until both countries played against each others and (of a sudden) I became a national threat.

  48. samah says:

    I and siblings have gone through this dilema too! My background stems from British Colonizing Egypt, Gamal abdl Nasser Egyptian young men assigned to go to other countries, as a result My grandfather stationed in Aden south of Yemen where brits colonized. Marries my grandmother who is yemeni. My grandfather is then stationned in Djbouti french and brit colony my father is born to my grandparents making him Eygptian now how do i prove I am egyptian from all of this any help here??

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  51. Amina says:

    How can you want to claim to be egyptian when you cant even speak the language? You have typed here in MODERN STANDARD ARABIC or some random dialect that is not Egyptian. If somebody came to you and started speaking very bad unclear english and claiming to be English, come on would you take them seriously. A true Egyptian speaks Arabic. In an Egyptian dialect. If you were not taught this as a child for reasons beyond your control then thats understandable but as someone who wants to claim and connect with their Egyptian side so much how have you never bothered to learn to speak Arabic to a fluent level? You seem to want to be Egyptian because it suits you but yet you are putting very little effort into it.

    From me,
    A ‘halfie’ who speaks English and arabic.

    Which half is which is irrelevant.

    • Sarah Carr says:

      Congratulations on speaking both Arabic and English, you are clearly very proud of this. Now tell me where I typed in MODERN STANDARD ARABIC in this post.

  52. Amina says:

    Sorry Sarah, i can always stand corrected when i am in the wrong. I have just re read your piece and please accept my apology as you have indeed used an egyptian dialect. I had another window open on my browser at the same time as this one and must of read another page. Please accept my apology.
    My above post was not intended to attack just to simply state the obvious. I am sure you are proud to be Egyptian but would just encourage you to learn arabic. I promise you it is not too difficult if you are really truly interested in learning the language.

  53. egyptchick7 says:

    Great post….My father is Egyptian and my mother is American-White ( really German, Scotish ancestries) and my middle name too was made into my father’s middle name on my Egyptian “birth certificate” ( I was born in the states)…imagine the confusion at customs,I get when entering the country with my American passport and American middle name with my Egyptian Birth certificate…trying to explain to them that in American a middle name is anything anyone wants it to be is rather difficult…

    Some full Egyptians don’t think I am Egyptian AND some non-Egyptians dismiss that I am Egyptian because I am a halfie…and I have embraced the term even though it doesn’t represent who I am- and to echo the commenter above about Umm Kalthoum and I will add Amr Diab and Asalah- Arabic beats run through my veins as it would any Egyptian…

    My mom raised me telling people that I am “half-Egyptian and ALL American”…she is a hoot!

  54. Jasmin K. says:

    My dad Swiss, my mum Egyptian, grew up in Switzerland, living in Egypt now. Love your blog. And btw be happy with the car rental, my last name is Keller…so you can imagine.

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